Goal: Walcott (2), Van Persie (44, pen)
Arsenal Line-Up (4-3-3). Szczesny (GK), Sagna (RB), Koscielny (CB), Mertesacker (CB), Gibbs (LB), Ramsey (CM) Arteta (CM), Rosicky (CM), Walcott (RF), Cazorla (LF), Podolski (CF).
Arsenal Dominate the First Half Hour
Unlike what we have seen in “big” games against Manchester City and Chelsea (in which Arsenal had very lethargic starts and went two goals down quickly), the home side started this game like a disrupted and angry bee colony, and were all over Manchester United early on. Rosicky in the advanced central midfield role and Cazorla dropping inside from the left brilliantly organized a fierce high pressing game. Their early pressing efforts were also well supported by Podolki who played as the central striker in the absence of Giroud.
In Arsenal’s central midfield, Ramsey started the game like a possessed man. He suffocated Carrick with his energy and did not allow United’s deep-lying playmaker any time on the ball. With Carrick unable to spray the ball to wide areas quickly, and with Arteta first to every ball before a fat and immobile Rooney (who was playing the support striker role behind Van Persie), Arsenal completely isolated Van Persie in the opening half hour period. The above chart shows that Rooney could not link up play at all during this period and had to play almost every ball he received backwards. Carrick also had to play the ball backwards 6 times during this period, and except one occasion, he was unable to find the wide runner on the opposite flank with one of his trademark diagonal balls (see chart below). Overall, it is safe to say that United were still in party mode at the start of the game after winning the title last week and had difficulty in coping with Arsenal’s early intensity.
Arsenal were quickly rewarded for their bright start. In the second minute, Van Persie played a lame diagonal ball which was easily cut-off by Gibbs and Arsenal countered quickly. Cazorla played a brilliant ball to Podolski who held it well and combined with Rosicky. The Czech found Walcott’s run behind Evra on the turn. The England winger was marginally offside but the flag stayed down, and Walcott finished past De Gea to give Arsenal the lead.
With United suffocated in midfield with Arsenal’s intensity, the home side could have increased their lead. In my opinion, the turning point of the game came in the 31st minute when Arteta won the ball deep in United half with an early press and freed Ramsey into space. The Welshman had two passing options, Podolski on his left was at a slightly narrow angle, and Walcott on his right was arriving unmarked from a deeper position. Ramsey chose to pass it to Podolski whose vicious left footed shot from a tight angle was parried away by De Gea. Walcott was furious with Ramsey, but the Welshman probably considered Podolski’s hammer of a left foot when making his choice and could not be blamed too much.
United get back in the game
After their insane early tempo, Arsenal eased off somewhat and Manchester United started putting together better moves. They should probably have equalized when Nani was released on Arsenal’s left and Van Persie’s point blank header from the Portuguese’s cross was saved by Szczesny’s face. Valencia also got into good crossing positions a few times, but his crossing was awful, fortunately for Arsenal.
When United equalized shortly before the half time whistle, it was classic Arsenal shooting themselves in the foot. Sagna played a lazy pass to Mertesacker which was intercepted by Van Persie who raced inside the area. The French right-back made his mistake much worse by chopping him down for a clear penalty. The striker listened to the small boy inside himself and equalized from the spot.
Arsenal Fade Away in the Second Half
Arsenal lost their intensity almost completely in the second half and could not put Manchester United under much sustained pressure. They were not able to regain possesion deep in United half, unlike the first half. This inability forced the home side to attack United’s well entrenched defensive shape with a patient yet somewhat slow build-up and in that build-up they looked a bit toothless.
Podolski in the centerforward role dropped a little too deep and never provided a threat to run behind the two United centerbacks who looked quite comfortable reading the game being played in front of them. Podolski was by no means terrible as some claimed after the game. Yet, unlike Giroud he is not a striker who attacks crosses and provides a presence in the box. The fact that the player who Podolski passed the most was Rosicky (11 times) is telling, in the sense that he was not able to bring the wide players into the game. The German also looked tired after the first hour (he does not seem completely fit) and was substituted by Gervinho. Overall, he completed the game with only one attempt on goal (the one described above).
Wenger also took off Rosicky and sent in Wilshere with half an hour to go probably to add more dynamism into the midfield but this was a curious substitution as Rosicky had looked lively. It is difficult to say that Wilshere and the other substitute Gervinho made much of an impact. Wilshere continued to look off pace, and Gervinho was…. well he was Gervinho. Arsenal’s main threat came from Cazorla’s long range efforts one of which forced De Gea into an important save late in the second half.
In the last 12 minutes, Wenger completely threw caution to the wind and replaced the tireless Ramsey (who actually looked a bit tired after his insane early effort) with Oxlade Chamberlain to inject more directness. It was clear that the Frenchman wanted to win this game as he was uncharacteristically agitated on the touchline. Ramsey’s substitution opened up Arsenal against counterattacks and United did look very dangerous a few times on the break. The visitors almost nicked all three points when Rooney found Giggs (a late substitute) in acres of space on Arsenal’s right, but the old-timer’s goal-bound shot was deflected for a corner.
Overall, it was important that Arsenal did not lose this game. Their early intensity should provide the blue-print for the remaining three games. Arsenal’s best player on the day was Koscielny who was simply immense.